jug•gling sticks and stones and a frag•ile lit•tle spir•it.

I was bullied a little bit in elementary school.  No one physically pushed me around, or took my lunch money (our small school didn’t have a cafeteria so it was homemade lunches until Grade 9; however, the school did acquire a pop vending machine so I guess everyone was scrounging for change to buy a can of always sold-out Tahiti Treat). No one picked fights with me at recess.  No one spread rumours about me (at least I don’t think so).  I would say that from the outside, other kids and/or teachers would have never guessed that I was bullied.

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Little Joann

I was bullied…a little bit? – what’s a “little bit”?  Like – as in here and there? Or a “little bit” as in, my feelings were hurt only a “little bit”?   A few jabs – a few comments over a couple of years affected what I thought of myself….a lot.  Looking back as an adult, I would say that I wasn’t bullied “a little bit”.  I was bullied a lot.  I took those mean comments and hurtful words that others were making to and about me and I started believing them.  In the end, those comments about my hair, my teeth (I had a severe front gap back then), my ears (oh man they stuck out so much), my last name, and my long winter coat (my Polish mom insisted that my coat be down to my ankles – you have to keep your ass toasty during those Canadian winters) all stuck with me.  The most hurtful thing anyone has said to me that sticks with me to this day (and when I say sticks, I mean I remember where I was standing, who I was with, what I was wearing, the weather, the boy’s face and his tone) was:

“Look at Joann….she is f*$^ing ugly”.

That one statement in grade 7 stuck with me for the rest of my life.  I will never forget it.  That one comment played a part in changing the way I look at myself.  To this day, it is hard for me to accept a complement about my appearance – even from my own husband who tells me EVERYDAY how beautiful I am (literally everyday – he is the BEST).  I can never just say “thanks”.  I always end up brushing off those compliments with a “ya, ya” while I sheepishly put my head down (I’m getting better – a work in progress).  Of course, it wasn’t just this one comment that makes me who I am –  but it is one memory that is ingrained in me.

That was my bully story.

Unfortunately, my son’s story is unfolding…

He isn’t a stranger to being bullied.  It started on the bus in Kindergarten.  A couple of older boys were teasing and grabbing at him on the bus.  We alerted the teacher and after a couple of “talks” with the kids, it was nipped in the bud.  At 5 years old, this was my son’s first experience with kids that weren’t nice.  Having the strong moral compass that he does, he couldn’t understand why kids would be purposefully hurtful or why they couldn’t follow the rules (I think this must be a first child birth order trait).  It was a lesson for him – a little negative experience (albeit an important one) that will strengthen his character as he grows up to realize that not everyone is nice.  Not everyone does the right thing.  Its hard to see your child upset but we were ok with him experiencing a little adversity at this point because we knew, eventually,  he had to experience it.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago.  Our boy hadn’t been acting like himself for a while.  He was coming home from school in a grumpy mood.  He talked a lot about how he hated school and daycare because it was “so boring”.  He would snap a lot at his little sister.  Then came the book orders.  He really wanted to buy a couple of science books but his sister had ripped out the order page.  Since the order was due the next day, I offered that he could order through his dad’s school.  He wouldn’t receive the books from his class but would receive them a couple of days later.

He flipped.

He had a full-blown, can’t breathe, can’t talk cry-fest over the thought of not getting these books on-time.  It was a completely inappropriate response for a 7-year old.  That’s when we knew something was wrong.  Once calmed down, we got to the root of the problem – he was being bullied by two of his “friends” at school.  He told us everything.  Every hurtful thing that the kids were saying (man – when I was that young, I don’t think I even know what half the stuff he was being told meant.  I was not prepared for some of the conversation I had to have with him that evening).  In the end, we contacted and met with his teacher and with school administration.  We were satisfied with their response and all seems to be ok for the last couple of weeks.  The hardest thing for us as parents was that other than having a good heart-to-heart with our son and alerting the school, we  knew that there was nothing we could do to prevent this from happening again.  It was a gut-wrenching feeling.  I didn’t want him to feel how I felt when I was bullied.  I didn’t want this experience to change what he thought of himself.

This is one ball that I wasn’t prepared to juggle.  I didn’t want to juggle.  I prayed I would never have to juggle – but into the mix it went.

So what did we say to him to give him some mental tools to work with if he found himself in the same situation?

  1. We told him it is important to tell a grown-up.  Tell a teacher you trust, and tell mom and dad.  If someone is bothering you and it is making you feel really sad, you need to tell.
  2. We told him he was brave to tell us what happened.  We told him we were proud of him because by being brave and telling us and telling the teacher might have prevented another classmate from getting bullied (our son loves to help others – it’s really important to him.  Other than being true, we thought it was important to phrase it this way to him so that he wouldn’t hesitate to tell us if it happened again – because he knows he could be helping someone else).
  3. We explained the feelings he should have when he is with friends.  We explained that your friends don’t call you names or make-fun of the way you look.  Friends don’t make you do something you don’t want to do.  Friends share roles when playing games.  Friends make you feel happy and you feel like you can be yourself around them.  If “friends” make your tummy upset, make you sad by making fun of the way you look, or make you do things you know are wrong or don’t want to do  – they are not your “friends”.
  4. We showed him a video posted by Brooks Gibbs – a social educator that teaches conflict resolution and emotional resilience.  Because you know – taking a stranger’s viewpoint on a situation always seems to have more merit.  Truthfully, I learned something too.  You can check out my Facebook page (The moth•er jug•gle) to see which videos resonated with our son.

Will it happen again?  We don’t know. It probably will.

Does he have better mental tools to work with than he did a few weeks ago?  You betcha.

This ball is going to be in the air for a long time, but with the right support, it’s manageable.